Heroes Never Rust #53 by Sean Ironman
A couple of years ago, I went to a cartoonist residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida. One afternoon, I sat on the porch with the master artist for my group, Megan Kelso, creator of Queen of the Black Black and Squirrel Mother. We spoke about my work, both past and future. She said she chose me for the residency because my work was confident, that I was going to tell the story I wanted to tell and it didn’t matter if the reader was on board or not. At the time, I thought it was a weird comment, but I kept returning to Kelso’s words when I read new work.
Nothing is made for everyone. Whatever comic, essay, story, poem, movie, music, or anything else is for every person in the world. Your favorite story is another person’s most hated story. I’ve come to think of creating art as something like this: I sit down at my desk in the morning and I have the whole world as my audience. Once I decide to write, I’ve lost like half the world. Once I decide to make a comic, I’ve lost like 80% of the world. Once I decide to make a comic about a dog and a T-rex travelling through time together, I’ve lost another 10%. The goal isn’t to finish with the most audience. Well, maybe if you’re a salesperson. My goal is to make sure whatever audience I have left is truly affected by my work. Part of creating a work of art is that you just have to go for it. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t like it or thinks it’s stupid, you just do it the best you can and go all the way with the concept. There will be others out there.
I love a lot of comic book writers. Way too many to list here. But usually, no matter how much I love one comic that a certain writer has done, he or she has written another that I don’t care for. Except for Garth Ennis. Everything I’ve read from Garth Ennis has ranged from good to fantastic, with Preacher being my favorite comic. One of the main reasons I love his work is because he just goes for things, regardless of whether a lot of people will love it. He’s confident in his work. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take a look at volume one of his series The Boys, drawn by Darick Robertson, another one of my favorite creators.
The Boys is about a CIA squad who monitors the superhero community and makes sure no one is causing trouble. For decades comics have attempted to bring superheroes down to the level of humanity. Instead of the god-like Superman, Marvel Comics brought in the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Daredevil, and the X-Men. More humanity was brought to superheroes. Regular people were superheroes. In the 1980s, the deconstruction of the superhero came around. What if superheroes were in the real world? Many of these comics had superheroes taking control of the world or these comics pointed out how superheroes couldn’t really exist. In The Boys, Ennis and Robertson take the reality of superheroes in a different direction. Superheroes aren’t conquering the world or deciding what is best for the world—Superheroes are dicks, at least many of them. They are incredibly powerful and popular. They walk around like frat boys who think they own the place. They are sexual deviants and care more about public perception, money, and status than saving the world. In a way, I think The Boys is closer to what superheroes would really be like than Watchmen or other comics. The Boys is a dark comedy, but sometimes comedies can get closer to a serious subject than a straight drama. This comic has a lot of sexual content, violence and profanity. So much so, in fact, that it was dropped by its original publisher, Wildstorm, an imprint of DC Comics. Luckily, Dynamite Entertainment picked up the series. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Ennis said, “We’d have died on the vine [at DC]. The book would have been chipped and chipped away at until writing it was pure frustration.”
The first issue focuses on two characters: Butcher, the leader of the Boys, and Hughie, who will become the newest recruit. The comic opens with a full page shot—a close-up of a superhero’s head being crushed by a boot. With Robertson on art, the image is incredibly detailed. The superhero has no teeth. His nose is crushed. One eye is swollen shut. Blood sprays. The ground is cracked. Underneath comes the title for the individual issue, “The Name of the Game.” Some readers don’t like violence. I don’t get it, but okay. People like what they like. I saw Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich, with a girlfriend and her parents. I loved it. They hated it. They said it was too violent. I don’t know what they expected from a film about the Israeli government’s secret response to the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. But, oh well. That didn’t make it a bad movie. Those people just weren’t into what the filmmakers were going for. Same thing with The Boys. If the reader doesn’t want to read a very violent comic, they know on page one what they’re getting into. They can stop right there. Dr. David James Poissant, author of The Heaven of Animals, taught me that the job of a writer at the introduction of his or her story is to let the reader know what they are in for. It’s up to the reader to decide if they want to keep reading. Ennis does just that.
By page four, we’re introduced to Wee Hughie, who is on a date with his girlfriend. They say they love each other and they kiss. Oh, how cute. Then out of nowhere, a superhero knocks a supervillain right into Hughie’s girlfriend and crushes her against a brick wall. Hughie is left holding her arms, ripped off her body just below the elbow. The superhero doesn’t care. He beats the villain and then runs off to the next adventure. What a dick.
This sequence is shocking not just because of what happens, but because of how Ennis and Robertson break the page. On one page is Hughie and his girlfriend all happy and lovey. The next page’s first panel is Hughie holding his girlfriend’s severed arms, and she’s already been crushed into the brick wall. Her death happens between panels. In comics, time passes between panels. Static images come to life in the gutters, the gaps between the panels. Here, Ennis and Robertson give the reader, and Hughie, a shock by having such a huge moment happen in the gutters. She’s dead and gone before we even realize what’s going on.
Something similar occurs on pages seven and eight. Butcher goes to see a woman at the CIA. He walks into the room. She looks at him. Then, the next page opens with Butcher having sex with her doggystyle. It gives the scene a much larger effect and allows Ennis and Robertson to quicken the pace. The boring stuff is skipped. Also, by page eight, we’ve had a superhero’s head being crushed, a woman crushed into a wall, her boyfriend holding her severed arms, and Butcher fucking a woman and saying, “Wait’ll you see where I wipe my dick.”
Obviously, this comic isn’t for everyone. This is the first third of the first issue. There are seventy-two issues. If you don’t like it by page eight, you should read something else. It’s not Ennis and Robertson’s job to give the reader something they like. It’s their job to create what they set out to create. Hopefully, enough people like it and read it so Ennis and Robertson can eat and pay their bills. But that’s it. They’re going to do what they want, regardless of readers thinking the comics is too filthy or violent. They get my respect for that, and my money because I happen to love what they do.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.